The Altarpiece of the Virgin Mary of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads probably reached Tallinn in 1493 as a joint commission by the Great Guild and the Brotherhood of the Black Heads merchants’ associations.

The altarpiece apparently adorned the altar of the Virgin Mary in the Dominican St Catherine’s Church, which was located in the chapel belonging to the Black Heads, who kept their possessions in the Dominican St Catherine’s friary. Due to the Reformation, the Black Heads removed their possessions from the friary in 1524, just before the iconoclastic outbursts. The altarpiece of the Virgin Mary was probably located in the House of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads until the Second World War.

Restoration in the
18th ‒19th centuries

The altarpiece shows a number of signs of earlier restoration. The oldest known renovation of the altarpiece took place in the 18th century; inscriptions on the lower parts of the outer wings, Renoviren Lassen DEN 1 Martis A° 17_2 and Rheinhold Kellerman erkorner Mester, refer to that. Reinhold Kellerman (died 1734) was the elder of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads who commissioned the restoration work. The inscription in the lower part of the central panel, Renovatum anno 1881, also refers to renovation. The initials JJ on the hem of St Gertrude’s abbess’s cloak are also likely to be a reference to an earlier restoration. These are the initials of someone who repaired the altarpiece. It is difficult to determine the nature of the earlier work done, since it was not deemed necessary to record the process of restoration as is done now.

Fate of the work during the Second World War

Confusion broke out after the Second World War. During the war, in 1943, a number of treasures from the Late Middle Ages, such as the Lübeck masters Bernt Notke’s Danse Macabre and Hermen Rode’s altarpiece for the High Altar of St Nicholas’ Church, were moved to the Järlepa Manor to avoid damage in the war. The Altarpiece of the Virgin Mary of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads was also among the works evacuated. In 1944, the work was brought back to Tallinn. The central panel and the outer wings were in the care of the Department of Architecture until 1956; the inner wings were found in St Anthony’s Chapel of St Nicholas’ Church, covered in dust and fragments of broken glass. During this period of confusion, it was often unclear which boxes contained the different parts of the altarpiece. In 1956, the Property Management of Architectural Monuments deposited all of the parts of the altarpiece in the chancel of Tallinn’s St Olaf’s Church until their conservation.

Conservation in the 20th century

In the mid-20th century, under the supervision of Mai Lumiste, an inspector of art monuments of the Ministry of Culture of the ESSR, the condition of the work was deemed problematic and a decision was made to conserve the work. The conservation was entrusted to Ilmar Ojalo (1910–1989) and Eerik Põld (1908–1995). Much mechanical damage, overpaintings, and detachment of and washing off of paint were identified on the work. The conservation work was carried out in 1957‒1958. The painter-conservator Aleksandr Korin worked in an advisory capacity. A special committee, including Mai Lumiste, Villem Raam (1910–1996), Tui Koort (1914–2005), Voldemar Vaga (1899–1999) and somewhat later Helmi Üprus (1911–1987), advised on the conservation process. In the course of conservation, the overpaintings were removed and no retouching was done. Where necessary, the surface coating of paint was reattached and cleaned. This completely altered the overall view of the work, as the overpaintings had greatly changed its appearance. After the conservation, the altarpiece was exhibited in the State Art Museum of Estonia in Kadriorg Palace from 1958 to 1984. Since 1984 the work has been a part of the valuable collection of the late medieval altarpieces of the Niguliste Museum.
Beginning in 2022, the new research and conservation project Glory and Luxury in Tallinn: The Altarpiece of the Altar of St Mary will focus on the altarpiece, which will be studied with the help of contemporary methods to create a basis for the conservation of the work.